Chris Hewett: England will pay price if Cipriani is forced into self-doubt

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The Independent Online

Last Tuesday evening, a few of the England players selected for tomorrow's important Six Nations match with Scotland at Murrayfield visited a centuries-old coaching inn half a dozen miles to the east of Bath. The hostelry in question had been recommended by Mr Brian Ashton Esq, coach of the national team, who happens to live nearby and regards the pub as his local. The point of the story? Ashton is nobody's idea of a dictatorial puritan who expects his players to be tucked up in bed with a mug of hot chocolate well before Fiona Bruce starts reading the news.

During last summer's World Cup training camp in Portugal he was more than happy to let his charges off the leash. Indeed, there is a very funny story about certain individuals arriving back at the hotel at the crack of dawn, just as Jonny Wilkinson was walking through the lobby clutching a bag of balls, ready for an early round of kicking practice.

Ashton treats adults as adults, but he has been known to draw the odd line in the sand. It seems Danny Cipriani crossed one of them when he visited a celebrity haunt in central London in the small hours of yesterday morning. It is said with some vehemence by the 20-year-old's club colleagues at Wasps that he was merely delivering some match tickets to friends, and was therefore entirely innocent of the allegation of "inappropriate behaviour" underpinning the coach's decision to drop him like a hot brick, but a newspaper picture of him on the town at 12.30am was hardly likely to endear him to the red rose hierarchy, whatever the circumstances.

There was any number of options open to Ashton yesterday. He could have ignored the thing entirely. He could have taken Cipriani to one side when the squad gathered at Heathrow and told him not be so daft, ever again. He could have slapped a fine on him, or ordered him to send a handsome cheque to a charity of his own choosing. Instead, he gave him the full treatment, not only denying him a treasured first England start but also reserving the right to "keep an open mind" on his participation in the immediate future.

Cipriani must be sick of newspapers already, even though he has been a regular performer at Premiership level for something less than two seasons and made only a couple of replacements' appearances for his country. Just recently, he felt compelled to deny reports that he was dating one of the Cheeky Girls. He also found himself implicated in a slightly more complicated affair, so to speak, when one of the livelier tabloids linked him to a woman who had started life as a man.

And now this. Cipriani will be back in the England fold soon enough – even if Ashton digs in his heels and refuses to consider him for next week's final Six Nations match with Ireland at Twickenham, which would be entirely counter-productive, he will certainly be in the party to tour New Zealand in June – but his many supporters are already giving voice to concerns that this incident will remove a layer of the ultra-confident swagger that makes him what he is.

Thus far, England's latest once-in-a-generation playmaker has taken the rough with the smooth with a degree of composure wholly unusual in someone fresh out of his teens. After giving the England team a collective heart attack by having a delicate little chip-kick charged down against Italy in Rome, he tried the self-same trick for Wasps against Bath six days later and scored one of the tries of the season. He subscribes to the adventurous notion that if he does not live on the edge, he takes up too much room.

But there is something necessarily fragile about the cavalier spirit, and if, by cracking the whip so hard, Ashton forces Cipriani to doubt himself, he will have done more harm than good. To be kicked out of a Test team at 20 is tough; to be kicked out of it before playing in it is tougher still. Somehow, the best young player in England finds himself facing the most important few days of an international career that to all intents and purposes has yet to begin. It is some achievement.

Pints and punch-ups: Nightclub notoriety

June 1996 Paul Gascoigne, Steve McManaman and Teddy Sheringham were photographed taking part in the infamous "dentists chair" drinking game in a Hong Kong club.

June 1998 The England manager Glenn Hoddle fined Sheringham after the striker was photographed drinking and smoking on two successive nights in a Portuguese nightclub days before the start of the World Cup.

October 2002Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas and Bridgend team-mates Andy Moore and Phil Booth were caught up in a brawl at the El Barrio nightclub in Lescar, near Pau, France, after a Heineken Cup game. The three were later found guilty of violent affray, with Booth also found guilty of affray, sexual exhibitionism and sexual aggression after stripping naked and shaking his genitals at revellers.

May 2006Chelsea's Wayne Bridge suffered cuts and bruises in a brawl at the Embassy Club in Mayfair.

February 2008 Tottenham captain Ledley King was one of many Spurs players snapped looking dishevelled exiting Faces nightclub in Essex after winning the Carling Cup.